I've done a lot of container gardening over the years, and one thing is a given for potted plants: it's a life of constant change. Moving around from one part of the garden, patio or sunroom to another, moving indoors and back outdoors again, and of course the inevitable periodic re-potting. It's a wonder that plants do so well given this life of constant upheaval, but the key seems to be to just tend to their basic needs and let them do what comes naturally.
When re-potting, it's a good idea in general not to disturb the root ball too much, but many plants actually benefit from having the outer surface of the root ball scuffed up a bit. This is particularly true of plants which have become rootbound, exhibiting a tangled network of roots around the outside of the soil, straining against the inner surface of the pot.
When you place the plant in its new, usually larger pot you will be surrounding it with a layer of fresh soil, and of course you want the roots to grow into this new soil as quickly as possible in order to take full advantage of the added nutrients it provides. Scratching or scuffing these outer exposed roots will irritate and slightly damage them, which will trigger a healing response in the plant - it will cause the roots to grow with extra vigor in order to repair the damage and, lo and behold, the new root growth will go right into the new layer of soil, which is just what you want! Caution must be taken, of course, not to do too much damage - just a light scuffing will do. Once the plant is in its new container with the new soil, water it in well and let the plant's natural growing tendency do the work for you!
Another example of letting the plant's growing nature work for you is when you separate plants that have been growing together in a single container for awhile. Last Spring, I found a potted banana plant on sale for $20 at a local nursery - but in fact it was 3 banana plants growing together in one 12" pot.
My first thought was "Wow, a 3 for 1 sale!" because I knew that I could separate them and have three plants for the price of one! The problem was that their roots were hopelessly intertwined in the soil, and because the pot was so small (for 3 banana plants, that is) they were badly rootbound. Not to worry - I simply yanked the whole mess out of the pot, grabbed a pruning saw and cut the rootball into three roughly equal parts, each containing one of the plants. Naturally this required chewing up the roots rather badly, and many folks would worry that such severe treatment would kill them, but I knew that with proper care they would not only survive, they would thrive in the newfound freedom of their own pots.
Each plant went into its own, roomy 16" pot (remember, they had all been sharing a 12" pot!!) and was packed all around with good 'ol garden compost. As you would expect, they drooped their leaves for about a week, then Wham! All 3 started growing and putting out fresh foliage like gangbusters!! This Spring, I'm looking at three very healthy banana plants, each fully twice the size it was when I got it, and each one with at least two budding young sprouts shooting up from the soil at its base! Three sisters not only surviving in their separate homes, but already starting their own families! They couldn't be happier, and neither could I!
The moral of the story is that while you should always treat your plants with as much care as possible, when the occasion arises that you must put them through some stress, don't worry about it - just do it. Make sure that they are nice and healthy beforehand, use good gardening technique and common sense, give them all the water, food and light that they need, then just let nature take its course. You can trust those lovely, leafy friends of yours; They Know How To Grow!!
Brian Dalton owns and maintains the Springtime Gardens website, and spends countless happy hours decorating and maintaining his own patio and container gardens.
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